The word ‘authentic’ comes up nearly constantly. Brands have a pressure to be presented and understood as authentic. There’s a very good chance you will be disappointed by this article if you clicked for the answer to the title question. Because defining authentic cuisine is no simple task. There is no easy way for consumers to answer the question of what they believe is authentic. In fact, it’s easier to define what isn’t right that what is.
Authentic cuisine varies by region, nationality, experience and brand. If you grew up eating cooking from your family kitchen, a meal with the same name from anywhere else will seem wrong. It’s not cooked the way you’re used to, so something is off. This is why people endure ridiculous travel conditions to get home for Thanksgiving. Any other way isn’t home cooking; it isn’t the holiday.
Megan McCardle pulls the lens much wider in her piece from Bloomberg View. Tracing the true available ingredients and cooking methods of most common cuisines redefines most food as unrecognizable from the version we accept today. Not just inauthentic but totally different food.
If a consumer only ever had White Castle hamburgers, they would certainly not feel that Backyard Burgers was an authentic hamburger. Or any other kind except Krystal which is essentially the same thing. So, every consumer has a different sense of what an authentic burger experience is. But how does a burger brand define that when they’re trying to appeal to that same consumer? Because like brands, any cuisine is defined by so many factors and memories that it’s impossible for a brand to know what is right.
Natives of, or people that have spent time in a cuisine’s country of origin for example will be looking for certain cues about authenticity of the meal. There are ways around these. Pizza has found an interesting end around in the Fast Casual space which allows it to abstract authenticity with customization and wood fired ovens. The consumer is satisfied by controlling the experience and less focused on an authentic slice of New York pizza.
Is Olive Garden authentic? To an Italian citizen who travels to America, no. It will differ dramatically in most cases. It can’t be authentic Italian cuisine. But is it authentic in what the brand offers and to its core customers? As long as it delivers on the brand experience and expectation, it is. To thine own self be true. Every brand is struggling to be authentic; and in the logic of the Olive Garden example every brand can be.
More importantly, do consumers even care? There’s probably a reason most mass brands aren’t what we think of as authentic. Most people don’t care most of the time. A lot of consultants report that Millennials crave authenticity. Actually they want the right meal for the right occasion. Consumers are selective about when they want the experience they consider authentic. Day to day, people want what they know will meet their needs. Fast. Cheap. Flavor. Nearby. All things they can nail down. But authentic, not sure they can put their finger on that one.